As the 2020 Democratic and Republican conventions unfold, one race will come more sharply into focus: the music race. Joe Biden has revealed his running mate, but has he selected a theme song? Will Donald Trump continue to keep using his already well-known music picks from the rally circuit, almost all of which have had their creators disavowing him, if not (in Neil Young’s case) suing over their usage?
When Biden made an online public appearance with Kamala Harris, they used Curtis Mayfield’s “Move On Up” as an at least temporary theme song. It remains to be seen whether that somewhat obscure but extremely hep pick will stick as a definitive campaign song, but if it does, there is a word for it as a choice: explicable. That’s a term no one has ever applied to Trump’s eternal and still baffling affection for the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” a choice that remains a head-scratcher not just in its individual lyrics or even general mood but from its lowball-threatening title forward.
Still, there remains little appetite on either side of the aisle for a return to the glory days of candidates having theme songs written on spec, for all the seeming benefits that would offer. With the custom-penned “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too,” William Henry Harrison could at least could be confident he was not in store for any cease-and-desists, but now it’s hard to resist a Tom Petty needle-drop, even if you are going to be hearing from the estate.
A look back at some memorable campaign songs and where they fall on the well-chosen to misbegotten scale, assembled loosely by category:
INSPIRATIONAL DEMOCRATIC ANTHEMS WITH DARK UNDERTONES
Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop,” used by Bill Clinton in 1992
Clearly, this is the most indelible use of an existing hit for a campaign or convention in recent history. It mattered little that the song hints at some unsavory backstory: “I know you don’t believe that it’s true / I never meant any harm to you” falls low on the scale of campaign promises.
Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” used by Barack Obama in 2008
Wonder and Obama were a match made in heaven, even if the singer did mention that “like a fool I went and stayed too long … I’ve done a lot of foolish things that I didn’t really mean.”
Tom Petty’s “American Girl,” used by Hillary Clinton in 2016
“God it’s so painful / Something that’s so close / And still so far out of reach”… Tell us about it, Tom. But it sounded rousing at the time.
PERFECTLY CRAZY CHOICES (INCLUDING “CRAZY”)
Patsy Cline’s “Crazy,” used by Ross Perot in 1992
The third-party candidate felt like he’d been dismissed by traditional politicos as a crackpot, so why not embrace the label and run with it, as a nudge-nudge joke? “While we’re on the crazy theme,” he announced, “I’ve got a theme song for my campaign.” As his political career ground to a halt, he seemed crazy neither like a fox nor like a country legend.
Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son,” used by John Kerry in 2004
It’s unclear whether Kerry deliberately meant to reply to his “Swift-boating” detractors with the use of the John Fogerty song, but, regardless, anyone who was born wealthy and subsequently faced controversy over his service in Vietnam might have wanted to deflect rather than draw attention to it with a tune about the overprivileged in wartime.
ABBA’s “Take a Chance on Me,” used by John McCain in 2008
McCain called himself “an ABBA fan,” though, critically, the debate moderators failed to quiz him on whether he really knew his “Voulez-Vous” from “The Visitors.” The “take a chance” meme may have sounded a little too “what have you got to lose?”-ish for voters looking for a more aggressive candidate.
WOULD-BE REPUBLICAN ROCK ANTHEMS: SUBJECT TO RECALL
Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down,” used by George W. Bush in 2000 and Donald Trump in 2020
The more things change… It’s natural that any politician would like to think of Petty’s fight song as “his” (or her) song, and Trump was not the first to think it must’ve been written just for him. Bush actually stopped using it after getting a cease-and-desist from Petty’s publisher; the Trump campaign has proven immune to such entreaties.
Heart’s “Barracuda,” used by Sarah Palin in 2008
It was a natural choice for the woman who’d been dubbed “Sarah Barracuda” in her high school days to want to capitalize on that fierce image with the Heart classic, but the band was not having it, and Palin backed down from further usage before the Wilson sisters went crazy on her.
Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World,” used by Donald Trump in 2016-20
Young mocked the language of George W. Bush and speechwriter Peggy Noonan in his arguably not-so-patriotic 1989 broadside against “compassionate conservatism.” Trump probably shares Young’s disdain for all those people and things, although it’s unlikely that’s why he uses the song. Young has now gone so far as to sue the president for copyright infringement for continuing to use the song. Will Trump give him a middle finger and have it played at the convention anyway? The suspense.
SONGS REWRITTEN TO NAME-CHECK A CANDIDATE
Frank Sinatra’s “High Hopes,” used by John F. Kennedy in 1960
Remembered affectionately, despite it being one of Ol’ Blue Eyes’ more annoying hits in either its original or politicized version. Sinatra, then a Democrat, convinced Sammy Cahn to do a rewrite on his 1959 hit. Cahn’s eyes must have rolled into the back of his head as he took pen to paper on these refreshed lines: “Everyone is voting for Jack / Cause he’s got what all the rest lack / Everyone wants to back —Jack / Jack is on the right track.” It got worse: “Oops, there goes the opposition – ker- / Oops, there goes the opposition – ker- / Oops, there goes the opposition – KERPLOP!” The new recording was even pressed onto a jukebox 45. (This is not to be confused, of course, with Panic! at the Disco’s “High Hopes,” which was used by Pete Buttigieg fans in a series of memes last year.)
“Hello Dolly,” aka “Hello Lyndon,” used by Lyndon Johnson in 1964
The Broadway musical had just swept the Tonys, at a time when even heartlanders bought LPs of hit shows they hadn’t traveled to see yet, so the title track was ripe for revision by songwriter Jerry Herman. No less a Dolly than Carol Channing performed it at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City.
“My Kind of Town (Chicago Is),” aka “My Kind of Guy (Dukakis Is),” used by Michael Dukakis in 1988
Lightning did not strike twice for lyricist Sammy Cahn, who found favoritism with his political redrafting of “High Hopes” but not 28 years later when he did a redo on another Sinatra classic, but with Frank by then too entrenched a Republican to sing it.
Sam and Dave’s “Soul Man.” aka Sam Moore’s “Dole Man,” used by Bob Dole in 1996
“I’m a Dole man!” And Sam Moore didn’t mean pineapples, although that would’ve been an easier sell. The surviving half othe classic Staxduo used his pun-manship to re-record their 1967 classic for the Republican pick who failed to pick off incumbent Bill Clinton.
THE LOST ART OF CUSTOMIZED ORIGINAL CAMPAIGN JINGLES
“Huzzah for Madison, Huzzah,” used by James Madison in 1808
With a name that great, you don’t really have to hear the song. But as it turns out, the song is pretty great: “And should the Tories all unite / And join again with British foes / Though Satan might applaud the sight / The heavens would soon interpose.” Eat your heart out, Lin-Manuel Miranda.
“Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too,” used by William Henry Harrison in 1840
Still the gold standard of commissioned political pop songs. How venerable is it? They Might Be Giants recorded a cover version as recently as 2004. (Okay, TMBG picks should maybe not be used as a measure of mainstream endurability, but still.)
Al Jolson’s “Harding, You’re the Man for Us,” used by Warren G. Harding in 1920
Jolson composed and wrote the song as part of Harding’s “front porch” campaign. Sample lyrics: “So it’s Harding, lead the GOP / Harding, on to victory / We’re here to make a fuss / Warren Harding you’re the man for us.” … All right, so there’s probably a reason They Might Be Giants never got to this one.
Irving Berlin’s “I Like Ike,” used by Dwight Eisenhower in 1952
Sometimes an internal rhyme scheme in a song title is everything.
Connie Francis’ “Nixon’s the One,” used by Richard Nixon in 1968
Who’s sorry? Probably just anybody at the time who heard Francis squander her talents on a song that went: “Can do / Americans can do / With the man who knows how to / Yes, Nixon’s the one to go with!” At a peak counterculture moment, you could hardly blame Nixon partisans for going with such an Up With People! choice.
John Rich’s “Raising McCain,” used by John McCain in 2008
The more unabashedly conservative half of Big & Rich wrote perhaps the most recent song of any renown from a name artist to put the candidate’s name in the title. Rich invoked McCain’s POW experience: “He stayed strong, stayed extra long ’til they let all the other boys out / Now we’ve got a real man with an American plan, we’re going to put him in the big White House … / We’re all just raising McCain.” No horses or cowboys were injured in the making of this country-rock footnote.
MORE OBSCURE PICKS THAT CLICKED
“Happy Days Are Here Again,” used by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932
It’s difficult to think of this standard as obscure now, but it would probably be a sub-footnote in history now if not for getting picked up by FDR. (It had previously been used in a 1930 Hollywood film, “Chasing Rainbows”; that particular footage lost later in a fire.) Some modern listeners accustomed to Barbra Streisand’s bittersweet ballad version — which she recorded in the early ’60s and continues to sing into the present — may not realize what a ferocously peppy Depression pick-me-up it originally was.
The Call’s “Let the Day Begin,” used by Al Gore in 2000
The Call’s anthem had been a No. 1 song on the modern rock chart in 1989, but was somewhat forgotten by the time it got picked up by the Gore campaign 11 year later. It was rousing enough to merit the resurrection, even if most convention viewers probably cocked their heads trying to remember where they’d heard it before.
Bruce Springsteen’s “We Take Care of Our Own,” used by Barack Obama in 2012
With a message of aggressive American compassion, this was the rare example of a political pickup of a heartfelt song that actually feels like it was written for the purpose — at least if you believe in the purpose, which wasn’t a problem for the huge overlap of Obama voters and Springsteen fans.
GOP CONVENTION SONGS WITH ARTIST APPROVAL: A NOT OVERLY ABBREVIATED LIST
Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA,” used by Ronald Reagan in 1984 (and nearly every Republican convention since)
Greenwood’s patriotic ballad wasn’t always seen as being as partisan as it is now… not when Beyonce actually recorded it in 2008 and continued to perform it for years afterward. Nowadays, though, it’s hard to disassociate it from conservatism, especially when Trump continues to use the song and when Greenwood, who performed at his inauguration, has proclaimed: “Donald Trump is a patriot.”
Kid Rock’s “Born Free,” used by Mitt Romney in 2012
“I was like, ‘Yeah, go ahead,'” Kid Rock told MTV. “I make music to have people hear it, and I’m not about to dictate at what level they want to listen or hear it at; that doesn’t matter to me. I mean, yeah, I’m a little right-wing, you know, I’m going to vote for Mitt Romney … but if you’re not, it’s OK.” Kid Rock’s reputation has subsequently trended much farther toward the profane-right end of the scale, to the point that nowadays the only danger might be in Romney disavowing him, not the other way around.
THE UNLIKELY SONG CLAIMED BY BOTH REPUBLICAN AND DEMOCRATIC CONVENTIONS
Brooks & Dunn’s “Only in America,” used by George W. Bush in 2000-04, Dick Cheney in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008
Country songs tend to be used by the GOP more than Democrats, either because of the genre’s red-state fan base or because Democrats are too short-sighted to see the appeal, depending on who you talk to. Al Gore was knocked for not using his native state’s most famous music as part of his 2000 campaign. But Obama did not make that mistake. He used Sugarland’s “Everyday America” but, more significantly, he stole away a Brooks & Dunn song that had been used by presidential and VP songs in the previous two election cycles, “Only in America,” as his walk-off music after his speech at the ’08 Democratic convention. It wasn’t as much of an outlier of a lift as it might seem. The song, which has more interesting shadings than might be guessed from just its patriotic-sounding title, was co-written by Kix Brooks, a Republican, and Don Cook, who co-founded Nashville’s Music Row Democrats group. Cook said Brooks called him after the convention: “He said, ‘You had to endure George Bush using it, so it’s only fair that I would have to endure Barack Obama using it.’ But he said it in a real light-hearted way.”